22 November 2019

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis


I've been on a kick to read everything Michael Lewis has written since I fell in love with his book Moneyball about this time last year. Since then, I've read The Blind Side, and now The Fifth Risk, his newest book. I thought because I loved Lewis' writing and his nonfiction style that I could read anything on any topic he writes about, but I've since learned American politics is where I draw the line no matter how good a writer he is.

While there was nothing wrong with this book, and it's so obviously Lewis' same voice throughout, it just wasn't the right subject matter for me. I always thought with the right author there was nothing I wasn't willing to learn, but the more I learn about American politics the more uninterested I am in it. It's actually one of my least favourite things to read / talk about now, right above history.  So my disappointment in this has nothing to do with Lewis, I just tasked him with making something I really don't like interesting and I don't know if that's possible.

Michael Lewis


The book spends each chapter focusing on one of the departments of US government through the Trump transition, how they each prepared and how they were changed by the new administration. There is some humour to this, because even the most objective writer can't write about Trump without making him seem like an absolute moron. One of my favourite things is that every department made all these desks and parking spaces available assuming Trump people would come in on day one and start rolling out instructions (the way Obama's team had), but nobody came for months in some cases.

Into the USDA jobs, some of which paid nearly $80 000 a year, the Trump team had inserted a long-haul truck driver, a clerk at AT&T, a gas-company meter reader, a country-club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern, and the owner of a scented-candle company, with skills like 'pleasant demeanour' listed on their resumes. 'In many cases [the new appointees] demonstrated little to no experience with federal policy, let alone deep roots in agriculture,' wrote Hopkinson. 'Some of those appointees appear to lack the credentials, such as a college degree, required to qualify for higher government salaries.'"

Lewis speaks to key people at each department to discuss their concerns and talk about what that department actually does as it relates to American people. It's clear he's trying to showcase the utter disorganization that is the US Government. All kinds of departments have taken on the most ridiculous responsibilities over the years and none really do what their name may suggest anymore, at least not exclusively. And, as Lewis points out, it doesn't help that each new administration sort of re-does the responsibilities per their own agenda, leading in 2019 to one of the most warped organization structures imaginable, all connected via weird dotted lines.

There's a drinking game played by people who have worked at the Department of Agriculture: Does the USDA do it? Someone names an odd function of government (say, shooting fireworks at Canada geese that flock too near airport runways) and someone else has to guess if the USDA does it. (In this case, it does.)"

Trump chose not to have a transition team throughout his candidacy. Some people speculate it's because literally nobody thought he would win, but the people Lewis spoke to felt that Trump just didn't really understand what the transition team was meant for. Many of the people at various departments that spoke to Lewis had the same things to share: Trump wanted to gut anyone who believed in or had been working on climate change initiatives, and Trump had no clue what else that department did or how it affected American life.

Trump doesn't seem to be alone either. There was a whole chapter about the National Weather Service, which is way cooler and has way more responsibilities than I ever suspected. I loved this joke below (which is not a joke at all by the way):

A United States congressman had asked [Kathy Sullivan, former NOAA Administrator] why the taxpayers needed to fund the National Weather Service when he could get his weather from AccuWeather. Where on earth did he think AccuWeather- or the apps or the Weather Channel- got their weather?"

One thing I liked a lot is that I still couldn't say for certain what Lewis' politics are. He clearly lacks confidence in the current administration, but that doesn't mean he's a Democrat. The book remains objective throughout, and really focuses on how regardless of party, the current system and it's ability to allow new governments to scrap everything every 4-8 years is hurting Americans. From a project management standpoint, nothing can get done if all the work is walked back in favour of a new agenda each transition.

Climate change, for example, is something he points out that Obama was very focused on. Some of the departments were structured with teams to learn about climate change, resources and money dedicated to innovations in this area, etc. For Trump to come in and slash all of that is essentially to pour taxpayer money down the drain, even if you were someone who originally didn't want your taxes going to climate change, it's just gone now anyways! All of those jobs it created now lost. Where is the win in that, even for climate change deniers?

a generic Google image I found


He also talks about how philosophies like denying climate change (if we can call that a philosophy) allow governments like the one Trump is running to create an illusion of being more focused and having more accomplishments. If he maintains that this is a problem that doesn't exist, he isn't expected to devote any resources to it or to try and solve it at all. He can take those resources and focus them on projects he has a better chance of actually solving.

But if you worry about everything, you wind up worrying about nothing. The Trump administration can forbid federal employees from using the phrase 'climate change' more easily than it can prevent them from dealing with its consequences."

This is a division Lewis claims is not really between parties, but between 'mission' and 'money'. People who are in it for the mission will address problems that need addressing. People who are in it for the money will address problems that hurt their pockets... although I think those perhaps are the loose definitions of Democrats and Republicans, but what do I know?

Someone got up and asked, 'If you are a store owner after Katrina, should you hike up the price of flashlights?' Greg Mankiw said yes, without hesitation. Ali remembered thinking: Greg Mankiw is a good guy. But that answer is absolutely wrong. We don't just have markets. We have values. I started to think, Ah, man, I'm probably not a Republican."

Lewis is also clearly a climate change advocate. He writes about how the Trump administration asked for lists of everyone in government under Obama who was working on, or had done training on climate change. Many departments refused to provide lists of these employees, knowing they'd likely be terminated. Lewis writes the following about the Republican rejection of climate change:

If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it's better never to really understand those problems. There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview."

I loved this quote because it extends so far beyond politics. There are so many things I wish I didn't know because my life would be easier, but alas.

I believe this was a really good nonfiction book for someone who enjoys politics more, but I just find it so dry and depressing. I have a few more of Lewis' books to read that are based on sports, and then some on financial topics, and I really hope I like the financial topics because I do like Lewis' writing.

I wanted to post one last quote, because there were a lot of goodies. This is one I know I'll be quoting for a long time because it's the kind of thing that fucks Meg and I right up. We always wish for some massive change, but it has to be the exact change we want. This has backfired on me a lot. These were the last few lines of the book, so clearly Lewis' feels some Trump voters must share my sentiment:

And so you might have a good reason to pray for a tornado, whether it comes in the shape of swirling winds, or a politician. You imagine the thing doing the damage that you would like to see done, and no more. It's what you fail to imagine that kills you."

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